The tale of how the Gospel of Judas was rediscovered is worthy of a detective novel, but there is an even more tantalizing religious mystery - whether the newly released document tells us anything authentic about either Jesus or Judas.
Instead of Judas as the sinister betrayer, the Egyptian Coptic text issued Thursday portrays Judas as Jesus's confidant, chosen to be told spiritual secrets that the other apostles were not. Jesus also asks Judas to hand him over to his enemies, a possible elaboration on a New Testament phrase in which Jesus tells Judas: "What you are going to do, do quickly" (John 13:27).
But should modern-day Christians take anything in Judas to be historically true?
Scholars will debate that for years to come, and the age of the text will be a crucial point in their arguments.
There seems little doubt that the document published by the National Geographic Society is indeed ancient, despite a murky recent history. It was found by a farmer in a remote Egyptian burial cave in the 1970s and sold to an antique dealer who at one point left it disintegrating in a Long Island, New York, safe-deposit box for 16 years. After changing hands a couple of times, it finally ended up with a Swiss foundation, according to an article "The Lost Gospel" by journalist Herbert Krosney, which was released with the document.
The scholarly team that studied Judas for National Geographic believes the document is a copy of a text first mentioned as heretical by Bishop Irenaeus in 180 CE.
Even if this is actually Irenaeus's Judas, a point that will spark further debate is that the material would still have been written many decades after composition of the four New Testament Gospels that the early church accepted as authentic. Scholar consensus dates Mark around 70 CE, John at 90 to 100 CE and Matthew and Luke in between.
The way these debates typically develop, the later the document was written, the less likely it has any reliable connection to the people who knew Jesus or were among his early followers. Without that, the document is not important for learning about Jesus's actual history but only for documenting a particular sect's beliefs in the second century and beyond.
Another nagging question about the Judas scenario is that since the New Testament says Judas killed himself shortly after betraying Jesus, how would anyone have known about the secret revelations this manuscript claims Jesus gave Judas only days before Good Friday?
On that point, New Testament scholar Bruce Chilton of Bard College thinks Judas was not meant as biography in the first place. The heavily mystical content shows the text "never set out to provide historical information, and to pretend it does, is a distortion," Chilton says.
One consultant on the Judas project, Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, says that the importance of texts like Judas is that they are "exploding the myth of a monolithic religion" and showing how diverse early Christianity was.
Conservative scholars say we have always known about the diversity but the Christian consensus on the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament Gospels was early, strong and widespread.
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